If running a coalition is an obstacle race, the Manmohan Singh government seems to be tripping in its final lap leading up to the Lok Sabha polls.
Rising inflation, uncertainty over the outcome of the Karnataka assembly polls and continuing Left-UPA face-off over the nuclear deal have cast a shadow on the Congress-led coalition as it completes four years in office on May 22.
The Congress’s worry over facing public anger against price rise is compounded by its inability to use the UPA's positives - including the RTI, NREGA, farm loan waiver and other measures - to strengthen its organisational base in areas where it is weak. State governments have managed to take credit for some of these schemes.
Among the many reasons for the Congress’ failure to exploit the UPA’s achievements is its inability to act as the bridgehead between the government and the people though it ensured party-government coordination between top Congress, UPA and Left leaders through the core group, the UPA coordination committee and the UPA-Left coordination panel respectively.
The Congress remains a non-starter in UP; in Bihar it remains in the RJD’s shadow; and in West Bengal it has yet to pose an effective challenge to the Left. These three states contribute 162 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha.
The May 25 Karnataka results will be a litmus test for the Congress which hopes to retrieve lost ground in BJP-ruled MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, Left-ruled Kerala and BJD-ruled Orissa (106 seats). Besides the BSP’s threat to play the spoiler, the party may also face anti-incumbency in Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and Maharashtra (97 seats) and DMK-ruled Tamil Nadu (39 seats) where the ally seems to have lost its sheen.
The Congress’ biggest achievements in these four years? It has completed most of its CMP commitments. It made a success of de-linking the posts of the party president and the prime minister, with Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh maintaining the fine balance despite Opposition criticism that the former holds the reins of power.
The party has managed to retain most allies, barring the MDMK that went with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the TRS that broke ranks on the Telangana statehood demand and the JMM, which remains on the UPA’s fringe. Then, there is a blow-hot blow-cold relation with the Left whose opposition to the nuclear deal has compelled the UPA to hold its hand even as time seems to be running out on the issue.
And though allies like the RJD allowed introduction of the women’s bill, their insistence on a subquota for OBCs and minorities may stall it in the standing committee.
As if the ruling Congress didn’t have enough problems managing inflation and a coalition, it also had to deal with controversies stoked by veterans like HRD Minister Arjun Singh.
The AICC reacted sharply to his Rahul-as-PM remark and Sonia and the PM frowned on his comment that the party lacked internal democracy. The Minister beat a hasty retreat but the last has not been heard on the issue as the battle for the PM's post intensifies in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls.